University of Leeds, Thu 15th October 2009 (29/10/09)

Charles Exford:

Apologies for going on a bit in this bad review. It's the first one I've written in years and you see, I am haunted by all the times when Nigel's been on great form but nobody's reported the banter before it was forgotten to posterity. Nottingham last year springs to mind as a case in point. A great night but memories of that one long gone & lost to posterity. I don't claim that I've remembered the between-songs quips and intros in this one word-for-word, but I've done me best (with help from YouTube where I found around 8 or so of the 28 songs that were on the set list).

Anyway, the lads amble on stage at around 9 pm as usual. No Wagnerain intro. Right away you can tell it's going to be a good night for banter from Nige "Good evening. We are very much enjoying your Newsam Temple House [sic] and its rare breeds. Take a flask." It's actually Temple Newsam House, as we all know that he well knows. The opening number is also reassuringly habitual, Light at the End of the Tunnel, a track which has surely opened more HMHB gigs than any other (I haven't counted, but that's not like me - I keep meaning to do it).

If it was also going to be a good night for banter from Nige it would also, unfortunately be a vintage one for barracking from The Rotherham Postie. This is a legendary creature, half-man-half-tape-loop, who haunts Biscuit gigs whenever they come up to these parts. With "That old time religion, it's good enough for me" still echoing around the hall, he bellows accusingly "What about John Barnes ?" as if Nigel himself had a hand in the hiring and then sacking of Barnesey, and is refusing to talk about it to the press about it. "Ha-ha we've got Ronnie Moore !" "If you're going to talk about John Barnes tell us one we haven't heard before," says Nige, as if shouting over a thin line of stewards at a not-particularly-original mob of home fans. At the time of writing Nige is currently 200-1 at Chandlers for the vacant Tranmere manager's job.

The next track is Running Order Squabble Fest, chosen, I'd like to think, not so much to get the audience chanting along early on in the set, but as a tribute to the latest victims of the HMHB curse, the mighty Chas and Dave, whose demise as a duo was announced last month I believe. Nigel seems to have a rueful expression on his face at the line "No Dry Ice ? No Dry Ice ? We're not going on if there's no Dry Ice!", but more of that in a minute.

Next, after ignoring the first of what seems like a hundred futile "What did God give us, Neil?" shouts from TRP, a rare outing for Christian Rock Concert, after which somebody calls out something about the Sisters of Mercy or something (actually that bloke with the black Mohican who plays with them is on the balcony up there to our left), and Nige says something like "No but we could do some Bauhaus" and sings a few bars of "Bela Lugosi's Dead. Undead! Undead! Undead!" That might have been prompted by his complaint to the man with the knobs "What's happened to the dry ice ? We had dry ice in the soundcheck", or it might have been vice versa. Which came first ? The dry ice or the Goth references ? It's the timeless question. Somebody keeps shouting something indecipherable about "Bath". Nigel gamely demands a repeat heckle, but still can't decipher the garbled squawk and resorts to "Aren't you the face of Home Bargains?" A much deserved plug, I remark to Mrs Exford who is alongside me (we are getting most of our moshing energy from Home Bargains - at least the energy drinks at 24p a pop anyway, if not the actual vodka).

"Anyway, I'm here to talk about Restless legs Syndrome" announces Nige. Or at least that was his general drift. Then, between that one and "Petty Sessions" someone demands "MORE dry ice!" "OK cos we won't be able to see you then" responds Nige uncharacteristically uncharitablly. Then, according to YouTube, my vodka-and-24p-energy-drinks must have really kicked in, cos I am myself heard bellowing from the moshpit (more loudly than I surely intended) something very intolerant back at the Rotherham Postie's latest "What did God give us, Neil ?", while Nige responds from the stage more temperately with "He did, didn't He ? He gave you Ronnie Moore. He'll take you up and he'll take you back down again. The novelty wears off after a while. I've been watching him since 1975 you know. Playing." Nobody in this very footy-knowledgeable crowd has the heart to point out that big Ronnie made his debut for Rovers in 1971-72 (spookily enough away at Oldham, another club he ended up managing), surely not because we don't care but more probably because we certainly don't want to put you off from all this very agreeable banter next time you come to Leeds, Nigel.

Then, "through the fog, through the [excellent] sound system, a shining light...." We're only half a dozen songs in to a 28-song set, so now is not the time for me to launch into too much of a cresswellian paean about the next song, Evening of Swing, but in my humble opinion this toweringly biblical, exquisitely retribution-filled vision of 21st century apocalypse is as deserving of a bloke saying it's vital as is its fellow book-end track on CSI Ambleside, National Shite Day. See Mike Cresswell's review of the Edinburgh gig last year if you don't know or remember what I'm on about. Anyway, we were treated to a simply outstanding live version of a totally brilliant song.

Perhaps luckily for you readers, via Bob Wilson Anchor Man, Problem Chimp, Girlfriend's Finished with him and Lark Descending, I can't remember any more banter until the eleventh song, Monmore, which was introduced, (at least I think it was this one) as being "A song by Van der Graaf Generator", and dedicated to "Anyone who's been in William Hills today". This got a big cheer for me even though I'd only been on the internet bookies' sites that day. This song is another personal favourite which I regard as a kind of lifestyle manual for us generally-think-we're-well-off-out-of-it-all-but-occasionally-get-bitter underachievers-in-life.

Between songs Neil twiddles distractedly on his bass while Nigel switches guitars or effects pedals or talks to an obsessive member about lyrics or something. "Do that again" Nige asks Neil, playing spot-the-bassline and soon coming up with "Colony by Joy Division". "Correct" says Neil. Perhaps a cover that Neil would like to suggest ? Nigel plays a few bars of an Irish reel, duelling banjos style, and when Neil offers no guess he says "that's the B-side". Something electronic that hasn't been working for a moment now is, so we can continue. "If in doubt switch the machine on" is Nige's wise advice.

"This is a song about Tending the Wrong Grave for 23 Years. True story. It happened to a Lady from Gainsborough." During the quiet bit, Ken is producing some even more amazing bird effects than usual. Nige is impressed, but asks for a repeat a few bars later, `cos Ken had produced them a bit too early, before we've even gotten to the Meadow of Consolation. "I didn't expect a load of zebras and anacondas", I thought Nigel said, but it turns out on closer inspection (of the performance as posted on YouTube) to have been more like "I didn't expect a load of zebras, an added bonus". Just goes to show in this postmodern internet world we can not only quibble about the lyrics at, but we can quibble about the banter on YouTube too and if we are lucky we may even get it corrected for us by those with less wax in their ears. Did he say `blessed are the cheesemakers,' anyone ?

In the meadow with the zebras are interesting dandies in practice for the summer eights..."sounds like one of those Eastern European cartoons you used to get 5 minutes before Crossroads started" says Nige, possibly explaining why I used to switch off 4 minutes before "Crossroads", meself, but then Claire Rayner appears and aah-AAAH the chorus kicks in again, before we segue straight into Everything's AOR, and the mosh gets truly mass-participation & well bouncy for the first time. EVERYONE IS SMILING (look on Youtube if you want proof, ah, look at all us geriatric old sods thinking we're really having it, and you can even see our very own Roger Green leaning on the stage chewing his pen about 32 seconds into that one).

Then "a song about Chatteris". Every song has a line on which audience participation peaks, and in this one it's "Prick barriers at both ends !" To think we ever doubted that those were the words. Those _are_ the words, aren't they ?

For me, this was a gig of two halves. Somewhere round the mid-point of the fixture both Mrs Exford and I sustained moshing injuries, both self-inflicted I must add, hers the more serious, sidelining her for the remainder of the gig. I should not admit in public that somewhere in the ensuing confusion I became convinced that the band were playing a cover version that I did not recognize, when in fact I realised the next it day must have been "I left my Heart in Papworth General". Well I'd left my musical memory temporarily in Moshworth Central after a bit of a knock on the bonce ... not to mention rather a lot of excellent Ukrainian vodka with my energy drink.

And so there's all my credibility with my readers gone, just as we get to 24-hour Garage People, but fear not, we have YouTube to fall back on here so there's no need to trust anything I say. Anyway, it has been well attested elsewhere that Pringles were 92p, that the 6 people in the queue behind Nigel at the garage "are all my pre-arranged friends, 2 of whom want mini-cheddars from the furthest corner of your store", that he gets called "lad", but doesn't dwell upon this sleight and responds with "son, bud, chief, boss, captain (if he's weariing a blazer.... with a T-shirt underneath with a slogan something like "my mum and dad went on holiday to Gdansk in 1971 and never came back")", that a mug saying "I Beat the Stig" gets put down, that the John Grisham book then gets slammed down along with a 2-night-old supposedly `quick' crossword, and that "by the way, speaking of crosswords, did you know the man who invented them is buried in Leeds' Holbeck cemetery? Yeah, go in the main gate, it's 5 down and 7 across ... (Huge laughter from audience but "I nearly threw a bottle at meself, then" I think he responds *see footnote)", that the iPOD contained a couple of tracks by Meatloaf and "once upon I time I had tickets for Rush, now I've just got bits on me fleece" (Total Eclipse of the Heart), that available sandwiches included "what he said" ( = whatever an audience member had just anticipated), and that he'd rather have had a bowl of Coco Pops.

Two hours is a long set, for us forty-somethings in the mosh as well as for the forty-somethings on stage. This alone may explain the relative lull in banter after this point in the gig, but I will speculate that it was the majestic National Shite Day which really marked the change in changed in mood. NSD seems to demand a different level of performance, Nigel tending to close his eyes to deliver this one, as if needing all his concentration, not necessarily to remember the lyrics (though I think when the song was first performed last year this may indeed have been the case) but to perform them with the intensity they require. Thank you by the way Gez for finally completing the notes on I never knew Stockard Channing was a woman's name, assuming him (her) to be some latterday male Perry Mason figure !

For NSD and the next half dozen tunes (Them's the Vagaries, Look Dad, Vatican Broadside, J-DOG, D-PAK, Trad. Arr), there was much singing along and much moshing, but less banter and less improv from Nige. The only major banter I can remember is that between two of the above-named tracks Nigel made one of his customary comparisons with being in The Grumbleweeds, to which somebody randomly shouted something like "you're more like the Spinners". "I quite like The Spinners," replied Nige, "especially that Ellan Vannin. About that ship tragedy in Liverpool Bay," and off he went into a few bars of
"Oh Ellan Vannin, Lost on the Irish Sea,
Oh Ellan Vannin, of the Isle of Man Company."

"But that's for another time" he said (Nige, did you know your Shefield gig is the Eve of the 100th anniversary of the Ellan Vannin disaster, December 3rd 1909. And yes, Neil, that is a genuine request !)

Anyway, if there was a lull in improvisation apart from that, it was only until the encores. How it seemed like an eternity as we waited on tenterhooks to know whether our heroes would return ! Not really, by the way; they always do. After less than 2 minutes offstage, 3 members of the band reappeared. "We want Ken !" we chanted. "He's having a piss", Nigel over-informed. After that I couldn't stop thinking about how long the piss was taking. Quite a while ! Sorry Ken.

Things then slowed down with the brilliant "Paintball" and "A Country Practice." The former's upgrades & replacements included a brand new Joy of Sex DVD (delayed slightly, to expose the audience singing `video'), and the following comments on the state of British comedy:

"They like their humour slightly `cutting edge'
They like their humour slightly `cutting edge'
They like their humour slightly `cutting edge'
And in the last 12 months alone...

They've been to see Al Murray, pub landlord,
They've been to see Jack Dee, how they roared,
Omid Djalili, Catherine Tate,
Carr, Carr, Starr and French."

The brilliant "A Country Practice" featured more updated observations on TV numpties, including:
"Pop groups on the sofa on Saturday morning, YAWNING ! Bands on Soccer AM being asked, "So you're from Southend? Do you get down to Roots Hall much ?"
And they look to the side to the TV chef, and they look at Razor Ruddock, but Razor Ruddock's not gonna help you now, boys...
"What's Roots Hall? What's Roots Hall ?"
" I thought you were from Southend ? Don't you like football ?"
"Well four of us are in the band, one doesn't like football, they support Manchester & Liverpool and I support Arsenal & Chelsea. Errm, here's our latest single."
Adrian/Sophie adds a booming `get involved', between the words `yes indeedy' and `footy', and whips the audience up into doing the Timewarp "when they would have done it anyway of their own volition anyway...that's the first time I've ever used the word volition in a public appearance...I don't know what came over me just came from nowhere."

But why am I telling you all this, when you could just check it out on Youtube ? What I will just say is that from "she died with her telly on" owards, it was one of the angriest versions of these lyrics I've ever heard, even if he did replace "T for Thatcher" with "T for Trumpton". "Let `em have it bass player", he cued , and we were straight into "Time Flies By", featuring a relieved-looking Ken. The last track was a rare old treat - M6-ster, and as the only up-beatsong in the encore it prompted mucho mosh-a-billying around.

Around 500 punters went home well chuffed. In fact I'd been relieved to see that many in the crowd when we stumbled in from the pub at the end of the Calvin Party set, because the number of HMHB devotees I knew (online as well as in in Leeds) who'd said they weren't coming had convinced me that this might be an embarrassingly small audience. I remembered a really badly promoted HMHB gig at the Leeds Irish Centre almost 9 years ago to the day which had felt like a private party, and when I noticed that just a few days before the gig we'd purchased tickets with numbers 096 and 097, I'd been a bit concerned about a similarly disappointing turn-out.

That explains why, the night before the gig, I'd suddenly had the impulse to text Radio 6 Music asking DJ Gideon Coe to plug the show. Mrs. Exford just happened to be listening to his programme, and by coincidence he was asking his audience to e-mail and text in with their examples of "classic onstage banter". There wasn't much airtime left but I just had time to text, saying that "There is no competition: Nigel Blackwell is the King of Quick Wit, and could Gideon please mention tomorrow's gig, which unaccountably hasn't sold out ?" Maybe he was just glad to get proof of having someone listening, but his reaction to my text went beyond my expectations. Within minutes he had launched into a "National Treasure" routine which would have made even Peel or Kershaw blush, which mentioned Judi Dench and Maureen Lipman and which culminated in "People of Leeds! Students of Leeds ! Go to see Half Man Half Biscuit!" Well, even if hardly anybody was texting, or listening, I like to think we added a couple or two to the throng. I'm not sure how many "students of Leeds!" there were in the 500, but the few pretty young things there were (apart from the pretty young Mrs Exford of course) seemed to loiter on the balcony and steps, perhaps afraid of being clumsily trodden on by us joggers-out-moshing, average age old enough to be their uncool uncles and aunties.

There didn't seem to be an event here in Leeds this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the great John Peel's passing... but I keep his photo on my mantelpiece, where I keep my tickets for upcoming gigs, and I swear the old fella seemed to be smiling even more than I was when all my dreams came true and my megaheroes Jonathan Richman & Half Man Half Biscuit both contrived to play gigs within a mile of my house within three days... Both played at ridiculously intimate venues that made you thank your lucky stars that the big record companies aren't half as smart as they'd like to think they are ... So I'll dedicate this review once again to Mr. Peel who first made me aware of their respective music. Two very different acts, but two of the most brilliant, idiosyncratic, improvisational, independent, inspirational, non-music-business acts you'll see on stage anywhere. And both fricking funny as f***.

HMHB lyrics always seem to jump out at you at odd moments of your life , but after you've been to a gig they seem to do so with particular ferocity for a week or so afterwards. Just in the last few days I have become disproportionately fascinated by all of the following: by the incredible co-ordination of flocks of sanderling on the BBC's Autumn Watch programme; by a goalkeeper called Campagnolo at the San Siro; by an incident where a statement that I was "just passing" was met with a scathing response; finally by a horse with "rain" in its name that finished second at Dundalk during a soup-like downpour. Cost me a few quid that little horse did, like, but it had to be supported. After all, a Dukla Prague Away Kit isn't just for Xmas, it's for life.

Don't leave it 4 years and 4 months before you play Leeds again lads .... and roll on Sheffield !

[*PS. It's an old joke, i know, but I had to check it anyway. Arthur Wynne, the Liverpudlian inventor of crosswords, died in Florida in 1941].